Sun around the earth, or earth around the sun? 26 percent of 2,200 Americans answered incorrectly when asked the question in an international survey conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2012. The survey, which tests basic scientific knowledge, is done every two years in order to see if Americans have become any smarter (which, according to the survey, they have not since 1999). The results are sent to the President and to Congress, supposedly to guide government policy towards reducing national ignorance.
With the results of the survey out on Feb. 14, the average score for American respondents was revealed to be only 6.5 correct answers out of nine simple questions on basic science. One of these nine questions had to do with perhaps the most basic scientific question of all, which was first addressed by Nicolaus Copernicus back in 1543: “Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?” Over a quarter of American respondents got it wrong!
The answers given for the other eight questions were also quite alarming. On a question pertaining to the Big Bang, for instance, only about 39 percent of Americans correctly agreed that “the universe began with a huge explosion.” Only about 53 percent knew that electrons are smaller than atoms. A whopping 49 percent thought antibiotics are effective against both viruses and bacteria, and regarding evolution, only about 48 percent agreed that human beings evolved from preexisting species of animals.
Although the performance of U.S. citizens on the survey is clearly nothing to be proud of, what is striking is that the vast majority of the respondents had very positive things to say about science. 90 percent believe that science is more beneficial than it is harmful, and 30 percent feel that science should get more government funding. There was also a marked desire to learn more about science. Most Americans said that they would be interested in hearing more about the latest scientific developments, medical discoveries, inventions and environmental issues.
So given their overwhelmingly positive attitude, why then did Americans do so badly on the survey? The answer might have something to do with education, not to mention the existence of certain public school systems in the nation that often teach students to doubt the most basic of scientific facts. In such educational systems, evidence-based science is systematically replaced with religious or creationist accounts of the world.
“Responsive Education Solutions Inc.” is a state charter school system which, as of January 2014, had over 65 campuses under its jurisdiction across the states of Arkansas, Indiana and Texas. There are more than 17,000 students enrolled in the Responsive Ed charter system. The biology workbook used by students in the program teaches that evolution is “dogma” and “unproven,” that the fossil record is questionable and that basic scientific facts such as the age of the earth are disagreed upon by leading scientists when this is simply not the case.
On a daily basis, schools across America either directly or indirectly dispute scientific evidence and support creationist explanations of the world’s origins. Evidence-based texts are selectively excluded from the curriculum while scientific premises that are widely agreed upon in the scientific community are presented to students as equivocal and under debate. Leading scientific leaders are often portrayed as chickens without heads, unable to agree on the basic principles of evolution, how old the earth is, and who knows, maybe even basic facts such as weather the Earth orbits the Sun.
The distortion of scientific facts is supported by the use of public funds as well as the passing of legislation in certain states by lawmakers with agendas that are obviously religious. The standards for science education in the state of Texas for instance, as well as recent laws in the states of Louisiana and Tennessee allow public schools to teach alternative accounts of how humans got here. Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in tax revenues per year and there is a good chance that tax revenues in the states of Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona or Washington D.C., are being used, at least in part, to persuade students that evolution is one of many unverifiable scientific theories. Evolution, however, is not a debated topic in the scientific community. Scientists have been testing and retesting the basic facts of evolution for decades with the vast majority of them agreeing on the validity of the evidence.
With half of the U.S. population believing illogical explanations about the world and its origins, it’s no wonder that Americans are confused about even the most basic scientific questions. For creationists, blind faith is often the standard and to question a religious teaching is presented as a sin that can lead to “eternal damnation.”
The performance of U.S. citizens on the international survey conducted by the National Science Foundation has seen no improvement over the past two decades. As long as lawmakers continue to support religious teachings over scientific evidence, there is no reason for anyone to expect improvement.
American children are routinely taught that “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” There is then the scientific account of our world’s origins: the Big Bang and the proven facts of evolution. To argue that one of these accounts should be believed over the other is one thing, but to expect them to harmoniously coexist in the human mind is quite another. So long as there are American schools that continue to inculcate religious explanations while excluding scientific evidence, American leadership has effectively forfeited its right to be alarmed when one quarter of its citizens shamelessly declare that the sun orbits the earth.
Editorial by Nicholas Maletskas